By Sammy Barker
The website, “Declassified” has done a great service to the peace movement with the recent publication of their investigation into Britain’s military presence overseas. The study reveals that there are at least 145 sites in 42 countries where there is an armed forces presence. This suggests that the British state has the second highest number of overseas bases in the world, after the United States. Of these sites, 60 are managed directly by Britain, with the other 85 being run by allied governments.
Jumping off points for aggression
This hugely expensive apparatus constitutes the coercive power of British imperialism in the twenty first century. Despite utilising the language of “defence” this infrastructure is aggressive in nature. Only a handful of countries in the world have overseas military networks, and these “exceptional” powers assume the right to define the international order and limit the self-determination of less well armed states.
The first major British government review after the end of the first cold war was published in 1998. That review stated “…there is today no direct military threat to the United Kingdom or Western Europe. Nor do we for see the re-emergence of such a threat”. The network revealed in the Declassified study has been built on this premise. The bases are positioned in a pre-emptive rather than a defensive manner.
To further illustrate this, it is necessary to refer to the authoritative documents of British foreign policy, the “Global Britain” documents published in Spring 2018. There we read: “Our alliance with the United States remains our top priority and cornerstone of what we wish to achieve in the world”. That being so, then it follows that the “enemies” of the US are also ours, as are their “allies”. So we further read: “The UK stands together with the United States in facing a resurgent Russia and new forces of threat across the world, as well as the implications of an increasingly assertive China…”
Following the US
We can then make sense of the location of British bases in Germany, Norway, the Czech republic, Estonia and Lithuania. These have no function whatsoever in “defending” Britain. They have a precise function in supplementing the US’s “containment” of Russia. The continuation of US hegemony requires the revival of the first cold war myth of the Russian menace to Western Europe.
Similarly, the existence of British military bases in the Asia Pacific only makes sense from an aggressive perspective. Bases in Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand and Nepal have a rational in the expectation of conflict with China. But China has not, and is not, engaged in wars of expansion. The threat of China’s assertiveness appears to come from the success of its economic development, and its foreign policy of “win-win” economic co-operation with developing nations.
For US imperialism, and, necessarily British imperialism too, China’s growth is by its nature hostile. Unable to shake off the decline in its growth rate, US imperialism aims to use its military and international power to block China’s further development.
In its role as sub-contractor to US imperialism, the British government is increasingly focusing on China, including through military aggression. Hence the proposal to send, in early 2021, a “Carrier Strike Group” to support the US in naval manoeuvres against China. This will include the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, along with support frigates and destroyers.
Such aggressive moves have been anticipated for some time. George Robertson, then Secretary of State for Defence in the Labour government, while introducing the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, wrote: “In the post Cold War world, we must be prepared to go to the crisis, rather than have the crisis come to us. So we plan to buy two new larger aircraft carriers to project power more flexibly around the world”, The flexibility of a 65,000 tonnes warship carrying 40 strike fighters is far from evident. But since 1998 the new target has become clearer, while imperialism’s methods and means remain consistent.
Building the Persian Gulf infrastructure
There are some surprises in the Declassified report. For example the extent of British bases on Cyprus is greater than previously published. There are 17 separate installations, a number of which are outside the sovereign base area.
Perhaps the biggest revelation is the extent and number of bases in the Persian Gulf. Permanent bases are situated in Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. But it had not been known that there are 16 bases in Oman and 15 bases in Saudi Arabia.
These six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are ruled by royal families with a greater or lesser exercise of arbitrary powers. In no case is there a sovereign democratic assembly, and government with a genuinely popular mandate. Defending these dictatorships has been a routine of successive British governments.
As the “Global Britain” documents states; “…our long term objective is to see the Middle East return to stability… Central to this will be maintaining strong relationships with stable countries in the region, particularly in the Gulf.” If your priority is stability, then the Al Said family in Oman has had political relations with Britain for over two centuries. Equally the Al Khalifa family in Bahrain has provided the same stability for almost as long. The Al Saud family in Saudi Arabia has stabilised an ever larger part of the Arabian peninsula for a comparble period, leaving a trail of corpses in its wake, most recently in Yemen. Why change a winning, if despotic, formula?
The absence of a popular mandate, and political freedom, is not a real consideration for the British government. What is much more important is the excellent facilities for the British navy in Bahrain, adjacent to the mighty US Fifth Fleet. Equally, the new facilities in Oman Duqm port being built for Britain’s two new aircraft carriers, a useful supplement to the US worldwide total of 42 existing and planned aircraft carriers. This location is perfect to aid the US campaign against China, and to a lesser extent against Iran.
Directly securing the stability of Saudi Arabia
The British government so values the stability of these regimes that it is prepared to intervene directly in their internal security. A report in the Independent newspaper, dated 28 November, revealed that British troops were sent to defend Saudi oilfields. These were landed in February this year, while the British government was still legally bound not to supply arms to the regime. Neither Parliament, nor the public, were informed of this at the time.
This was justified by Defence Minister, James Heappey, in correspondence where he wrote: “…deployment is purely defensive in nature and helps Saudia Arabia with the very real threats it faces”. As the deployment was a by-product of the Saudi led Coalition’s invasion and occupation of Yemen it can hardly be characterised as “defensive”.
The sensitivity of these deployments is because of their deeply unpopular character with the majority of the population. British troops and special forces have long been used to sustain these regimes. For example, in 1970 the British army brought to power in a coup, Sultan Qaboos, who only relinquished his rule of Oman this year when he died of old age. Many of the bases in Oman appear to be intelligence gathering facilities. There is no reason to believe this does not include monitoring the Omani opposition. GCHQ refuses to confirm or deny.
Clearly the British government is building up and extending facilities and deployment in the Gulf. This has nothing to do with Britain’s security. It is purely to sustain allied undemocratic regimes, and fill out the logistical paths of the new Cold War on China and developing nations.
Despite the relatively small size of the GCC countries, the British state has a disproportionate attachment. This imbalance has historic roots in Empire, but more significantly in petrodollars. These six small countries are collectively a larger market for the UK than either China or India. A reset of British policy towards these much larger developing economies is surely overdue.
Other boot prints on the globe
An essential link in the chain of aggression is the US military facility at Diego Garcia on the Chagos Islands. This was gifted to the US by Britain despite the territory belonging to Mauritius. The Chagos Islanders were forcibly deported to allow imperialism an unimpaired use of their homeland. Despite the UN General Assembly passing a resolution instructing Britain to return the island, the British government has refused. “The international community” only has authority when it serves British or US interests.
In Africa, there are British military personnel in Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Mali. These are mostly small training, or loan, arrangements. But the intervention in Sierra Leone has been direct, taking part in assisting the victory of one side in a civil war. In Mali, British troops have been in constant action since 2011, this followed the destabilisation and destruction of Libya by NATO and its overspill into the neighbouring country. This year there have been large-scale protests in Mali against the foreign troops.
In Latin America, the largest presence is on the Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands). Huge resources and finances have been invested in keeping the colony safe from the claims of Argentina and the peoples of Latin America. The colony bears the same geographic relation to Latin America that the Isle of Wight does to Britain. But such obvious indicators of injustice have yet to halt British imperialism.
The military also has a substantial base on Ascencion Island in the South Atlantic.
The other major base in the Americas is in Belize where there are 13 sites. British troops have access to one sixth of the country. This is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, which is obviously threatened by extensive military exercises.
One oddity from the report is that Britain maintains a military presence in a number of tax havens. These include Jersey, Gibraltar, Bermuda, Montserrat, Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos. Wealthy individuals and firms have their lack of transparency guarded by British taxpayers.
Declassified are greatly to be commended for this work. Of course, the work does not claim to be definitive. British special forces are certainly operating beyond the range of the report. But the report gives enough evidence of how the new Cold War is being built up, and how the pieces are in place for the continuing suppression of popular sovereignty by imperialism. In the coming period anti-war activists will need to share such knowledge in order to check the belligerence of British imperialism.